Xerxes

ARTS, Music

NBR New Zealand Opera
Civic Theatre, Auckland | March 2-6
St James Theatre, Wellington | March 15-19

From all the publicity, you would have thought that Trelise Cooper was the prime attraction at New Zealand Opera’s Xerxes, the Auckland Arts Festival opener. But while the outré costuming was an unmissable element of this production, the real excitement came from the musicians, in particular the two starring countertenors, Tobias Cole and William Purefoy, and the period orchestra the Lautten Compagney.

With a permanent operatic diet of Verdi et al., we’re not used to the transparency and relative heterogeneity of sound that a smaller ensemble of period instruments provides, and Handel’s Xerxes (written 1733-38) is an ideal way to experience this. In this enjoyable production at Auckland’s Civic Theatre, the musicians are directly in front of the stage, giving visual access to instruments (such as a theorbo) seldom seen (nor heard) here. The Lautten Compagney played with the sensitivity of a chamber ensemble, the musicians very clearly listening to each other, while director Wolfgang Katschner allowed a welcome flexibility in tempo that at its fastest pushed the woodwind to their limits.

The dramatic action in the opera revolves around King Xerxes’s desire for his brother Arsamene’s love interest Romilda. Unlike the Xerxes of Zack Snyder’s violent and racist 300, Handel’s Xerxes is slightly foppish (at least in this production) and a bit of a fool. Tobias Cole’s overly camp characterization, which thankfully settled down in the third act, was offset by his strong vocal performance of what is a particularly testing part.

The production is uneven, with the first half plagued by overacting by the male leads, and it’s tempting to fault director Roger Hodgman—whose background is in musical theatre—for this. Xerxes is a funny opera, but there are real moments of beauty and profundity, and much of the emotional power of the work was missing in this performance. Stephen Bennett as Elviro stood out as providing genuine comedy, but for much of the opera it felt like the vocal soloists weren’t really trusting the music to do the job, the acting at times bordering on ridiculous. Countertenor William Purefoy, in the role of Arsamene, was certainly guilty of this, though he delivered vocally with a beautiful purity of sound and less strain at the top of his voice than Cole. Tiffany Speight, as Romilda, and Amy Wilkinson, playing the eternally unlucky-in-love sister Atalanta, provided very well-judged characterizations and assured vocal performances.

John Verryt’s simple yet elegant set worked well and was enlivened by Matt Scott’s lighting though, like the acting, this was at times a little overdone. The tendency to obviousness is a major fault of this production. Audiences aren’t stupid—trusting them a little more would have made this musically outstanding production a complete success.